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Guest Commentary: Putting the User's Needs First (4/5/2009)
By Bert de Haes, Niko
Having founded Intensia, a high-end whole-house automation system designed to make homes easy to operate, easy to run and, just as importantly, radiate true quality and style, I met Niko's Chairman at an exhibition in 2003 and found that we shared the same vision - to the point where he bought the company! I now run both Product Development and Marketing at Niko with the responsibility of developing the next generation of smart home solutions, and then promoting them.
Growing awareness of home automation
In the beginning, custom installation was for the technically-motivated and classic 'early adopters', but we are now in a much more exciting stage of our development. We see the potential for home automation and custom-installed products becoming far more accessible to ordinary people, and more aspirational as the awareness of these types of solutions become more widely recognised. With much simpler operating front-ends than was the case previously, they are also becoming attractive to less technically-competent people.
As a consequence of energy shortages, we need to be thinking about how we can help consumers reduce consumption rather than only about how equipment and systems operate in a household. Before too long, the national energy grid will need to be able to interrogate individual household supplies in order to plan for demand. For this reason, we should think about how our equipment can communicate externally with the grid in order to allow better conservation of resources, and so that the grid will cope with demand.
We are living in a world where, more than ever, safety, comfort, well-being and energy-saving measures are not only desired, but demanded. Home automation and custom installation can bring all of these features together in one very desirable package, whilst also enabling two-way communication within and outside the home.
All projects are unique, and so installers must be provided with solutions that deliver on a number of key areas, and which are quick and easy to install and provide a consistently high level of performance against expectations. As manufacturers, it is our job to design these products so that, in the face of tomorrow's energy restrictions, the industry grows stronger together.
Planning for the future
In a world where we need to create solutions and products that fit those solutions, we at Niko are constantly asking ourselves two questions: 'What are the needs for today?' and 'How can we build-in a degree of future-proofing?' We are constantly examining our systems and products to see how they might be extended to provide solutions in the future.
Looking at lighting as one key area, the user interface is again a key issue in new product development. With the arrival of solid state light sources, namely laser and LED, there are additional opportunities to control and define lighting scenes, not only in terms of intensity, but also with colour. This will have a dramatic effect on the way users interact with their environment and what they expect from the systems that control it.
We are looking towards a future where products must be able to talk to each other over a range of media, including RF, bespoke cabling and the local electrical supply. Not only that, but products need to be able to operate flawlessly together as a complete solution, regardless of the delivery medium.
I believe that the future will be a very exciting and rewarding place to be. Across all industries, renowned manufacturers are already starting to work together on products that allow a level of interoperability that puts users' needs first. I believe that this must happen with a broader alliance across sectors in order to increase consumer confidence in introducing this type of technology into their homes.
Advice to the industry
We need to concentrate on delivering accessible and attractive user interfaces, and sophisticated systems that appear very simple and require minimum human interaction. Smart home systems must have functionality, but without the need for complex control systems. We need to limit the number of buttons that users have to operate so that the system does it for them.
System designers need to understand the lifestyles of their clients so that they can design systems that anticipate their needs. For example, simple settings for working days and leisure days that, with one simple command, ensure that the heating, lighting and alarm calls become operational at, say, 7am on workdays, whilst at the weekend and during holidays, the settings are changed to cancel alarm calls, and keep the heating switched on throughout the day. In other words, we're looking at providing a level of artificial intelligence that, as far as the consumer is concerned, delivers an easy, comfortable lifestyle, thanks to the systems we have installed.
Bert de Haes is the Marketing Director for Niko nv, Belgian manufacturer of electrical switches and smart home solutions.
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